The British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (British APCO) has published a white paper on the topic of “Next Generation 999” (NG999), which highlights the issues that must be addressed if the UK public is have access to an emergency call service that operates consistently well across all emergency services and regions and makes full use of available technology.

The paper summarises the discussions from the Association’s NG999 event, which took place on 11 June. It states that “To get consistency of response across the services there needs to be a clear and agreed roadmap of future development including MAIT (multi-agency incident transfer), AML (advanced mobile location), use of data, video and AI, and the demise of PSTN (public switched telephone network) in 2025. As examples, currently AML is used by all Ambulance services, nearly all Fire and Rescue services, but only about 60 per cent of Police forces.”

It also says that “It was felt that the Government should lay out a clear strategy and roadmap, acting like a private company and considering KPIs, setting clear expectations and focusing on future 999 performance, responses and consistency.”

The white paper also discusses the danger posed by “the data deluge” – the possibility that emergency call takers will be bombarded with too much information from various sources – and the absence of “no single consolidated system to centralise data – who owns it, who wants it? Who pays for it?”

In addition to discussing the role of social media, AI, and the potential benefits of remote working, the white paper highlights the need for a more joined-up approach, stating that: “There needs to be a cultural change – we know that there are a lot of chief officers with many competing priorities, but the technology roadmap is a priority. There needs to be a transformation in the way in which [the UK’s] emergency services cooperate in terms of business processes and procurement.”

The paper also noted that BT is upgrading the platform that currently handles the 999 services and that “it is expected that the first phase upgrade will be in place by the end of March/April 2021 following a two-year programme. This will provide backward capability for voice, telematics (eCall) and SMS. A three-month migration period will see the old platform remaining in place with extended support… BT plans to have support for ‘normal’ voice calls plus VOIP (voice over IP), and alerts from wearables and smart speakers/digital home assistants to be in place by 2025.”

The paper ends by saying that: “The barriers to advancement are organisational and political, not technological. Technology is leaping forward, but the transformation of the emergency services is sluggish – there is a real danger of being left behind and failing the public.”

In an accompanying letter, Ian Thompson, CEO of British APCO, said: “The UK is justifiably proud of its 999 service. The world moves on though, never more so than in the field of technology. With every new device, app and feature, the public has ever greater expectations that our emergency services and their supporting ecosystem will make full use of the best technology and information available to keep us safe and to answer calls for help.

“We know the reality does not match those expectations. New features and functionality cost time and money and join an ever-growing list of competing priorities. This is as true for BT as it is for the emergency services.

“One of BAPCO’s roles is to run the 999 App Accreditation Scheme on behalf of the UK’s 999 Liaison Committee. I am concerned we see apps emerging that have real potential benefit for the emergency services and for public safety providers. However, these cannot progress into the 999 system because as of today, BT can generally handle only voice calls and a limited number of messages via SMS.

“There are times when those in need cannot make a voice call. On other occasions, valuable information could be available from the scene, but the caller has no option to communicate other than by voice.

Thompson also said that the white paper is intended to act “as the basis for further debate and the development of what must be a robust project plan that will ultimately result in a comprehensive technology roadmap for NG999.”

Author: Sam Fenwick